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BITE-SIZED

It's no secret that I eat most of my meals in restaurants. It's convenient, I don't have to do dishes 
 and I can seek creative culinary offerings when the mood strikes. (Also, kinda my job.) Over the last year, I've had a lot of memorable meals. Here are a few of my favorite crave-worthy items from 2013:

Favorite breakfast treat: Tomato pie (Bold Bean Coffee Roasters, Riverside)

This savory, handheld quiche-like pie makes getting out of bed 100 percent worth it: buttery, flaky pie crust houses a blend of egg and cheese, thin slices of tomato (both green and red), cooked onion and a generous dusting of cracked black pepper.

Favorite salad: Greek kale salad (Native Sun Natural Foods Market, Baymeadows and Mandarin)

Organic kale tossed with homemade Greek dressing, pepperoncini, chunks of crumbly feta, salty kalamata olives, diced artichoke hearts and — in my version — hold the red onion, add chickpeas. There's something about the tangy dressing with this assortment of toppings that makes this salad shine.

Favorite soup (tie): Barley ash (Green Erth Bistro, San Marco) and BBQ pork and wonton pho 
(Bowl of Pho, Southside)

These two soups couldn't be less alike, but I love them equally. The first is a thick Persian number overflowing with barley, beans and herbs and bursting with flavor. The pho is brothy, stocked with thin tangled egg noodles and pork-stuffed wontons, and quite comforting on a cold day.

Favorite lunch: Bruschetta (French Pantry, Southside)

Possibly the longest line I'll wait in for a meal, let alone lunch, is at French Pantry. Thick, house-baked crusty bread is generously buttered then topped with shrimp, artichoke hearts and

rich goat cheese, served with a heaping mound of balsamic and basil diced tomatoes atop a bed of mixed greens. Go now to get in line.

Favorite seafood: Raw oysters (Cap's on the Water, St. Augustine)

Plump raw oysters served on the half-shell with cocktail sauce, mignonette, lemon wedges …   More

BITE-SIZED

Ever thought about slowing down a bit?

If you have, you're in luck. On May 2, the fourth annual Slow Down event at Intuition Ale Works will feature at least 26 local restaurants and artisans. For $20, attendees can feast upon dishes crafted by these restaurants and artisans (see sidebar) that focus on locally grown and sourced ingredients. (One hundred percent of proceeds go to Slow Food First Coast.)

In addition to local nibbles, there will be cold craft beer, music and plenty of socializing — but perhaps most important is the awareness being raised.

"Slow Food is important because it is an educating organization," says Kurt D'Aurizio, director of events at Slow Food First Coast. "By spreading the word about foods, farmers, restaurants and artisans who are preserving our food heritage, Slow Food allows us all to learn, make educated choices and be part of the future of our food system. I began working with Slow Food years ago as a chef because my food philosophy matched their vision: local, quality, artisan and heritage — good, clean and fair food for all."

Slow Food First Coast is one of 255 Slow Food USA chapters. Each aims to strengthen the connection between the health of our planet and the food we see on our plates by celebrating foods that are local, seasonal and sustainably grown. The nonprofit touts nutritious food that is beneficial for both our bodies and the planet.

Slow Food USA was founded to counteract the prevailing fast-food lifestyle, and its adherents believe we should consciously embrace where our food comes from, who makes it, how it's made and how it's transported. We should also be aware of how our food is produced, and how it impacts the environment and animal welfare — as well as our own health.

"All of the participants are locally owned food businesses that make it a priority to support local artisans and farmers," says event producer Cari Sanchez-Potter. "The Slow Down celebrates their commitment to fostering our …   More

BITE-SIZED

Tucked right inside the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, Café Nola is a delightful modern bistro situated next to the Main Library and across the street from Hemming Plaza.

Executive Chef Kathy Collins takes great pride in sourcing fresh ingredients — even using herbs grown on the building's rooftop garden.

Café Nola, outfitted in clean white and green hues, boasts an open kitchen and a modern interior with extra high ceilings and natural light. I suggest snagging a seat by the windows facing Hemming Plaza.

On a recent dinner visit during the One Spark festival, we started with sweet potato nachos, which proved to be a unique twist on traditional nachos. The base was a generous heap of thinly cut, crispy sweet potato chips topped with a creamy and rich bleu cheese sauce, sliced scallions, salty applewood-smoked bacon and sweet and tangy balsamic reduction. I stopped short of licking the plate.

The spring lobster gnocchi was lighter than I would have imagined, but still filling. The homemade potato gnocchi were soft and delicate, paired with crisp sautéed haricot verts and halved grape tomatoes, steamed Maine lobster pieces swimming peacefully together in a corn jus — a perfect spring dish.

The varied menu includes popular entrées such as a mac 'n' cheese with black truffle shavings, goat cheese, wild mushrooms and roasted chicken — served in a cast-iron pan. Another favorite, shrimp and grits, features plump shrimp in a creamy white wine and mushroom sauce with applewood bacon atop firm smoked cheddar grit cakes. It's served with a sun-dried tomato crostini, but I'm always too full to indulge.

For lighter fare, try one of the flavorful salads. There's a Caesar with a black truffle butter-basted local fried egg (say that three times fast); a Cobb with fresh steamed Maine lobster, asparagus and blueberries; and a warm calamari and artichoke salad with roasted pepper vinaigrette over fresh baby …   More

BITE-SIZED

Vitamin-rich calcium. Strong bones. 
 Hunger-busting protein. That's why I 
 eat cheese — right? Of course not. I eat cheese because it's absolutely delicious, and because there are so many varieties. We're not talking Velveeta or slices of that fluorescent Kraft-processed-whatever-it-is or the shakers of grocery-store Parmesan you dumped on your spaghetti as a kid. There are so many kinds of cheese to choose from — luxurious creamy cheeses, hardy firm aged cheeses, stinky blues — all begging to join your plate.

Because of that versatility, constructing your own winning cheese plate may be daunting. It's not; in fact, it's surprisingly simple.

Start by limiting the varieties. Stick with a trio. Since contrast is important, include one of each: soft, firm and blue, which will provide a nice assortment of flavors (salty, nutty, buttery, sweet, earthy, smoky, fruity) and textures. If you want four kinds, consider making one of your soft selections a goat cheese (soft and spreadable,) and another brie.

Cheeses with different textures — take that soft, creamy brie, for example — can be used to offset a firmer Gouda or Gruyere. Try a triple cream (so smooth!) called St. Andre. If you're in the mood to go blue, opt for maximum flavor by grabbing a Stilton, Maytag Blue or Roquefort. Be open. Experiment.

You really can't screw this up. There are no rules. Just be sure that you have several flavors and textures, and keep in mind that each cheese should have a separate spreader so you don't mix discordant flavors.

Once your trio is picked, label your selections. (Think chalk on a blackboard cheese tray or insert small toothpick flags with your selections' names on them into the cheeses.) If your guests fall in love with one of your choices — and why wouldn't they? — they'll easily be able to learn its name, origin and type.

Remember that most cheeses are at their best when served at room temperature. Set them out about 45 minutes prior …   More

BITE-SIZED

You can get dinner and a movie in one stop at the eclectic Five Points theater Sun-Ray Cinema. Two years ago, Tim Massett and his wife, Shana, reopened the historic 1927 theater and ramped up the menu.

For movie theater food, Sun-Ray's snack bar earns top-notch ratings. There's an emphasis on local ingredients, such as the use of freshly baked bread and hot dog buns from Bakery Moderne, beers from Bold City Brewing on tap, Bold Bean Coffee Roasters coffee, Twinn Bridges kombucha on draft and popcorn toppings from Blue Buddha Exotic Foods in Riverside.

The popcorn bar is a moviegoer's dream: more than a dozen mix-and-match, shake-it-yourself toppings like thyme, dill, hot Chinese mustard, cinnamon, nutritional yeast, zhatar and a truffle oil mist. Shana Massett stresses that you won't find any artificial ingredients. All the popcorn is popped with Himalayan sea salt, black pepper, garlic powder and annatto (for color).

The 9-inch pizzas and specialty pies are a must. Craving something sweet and spicy? Go for the Pagan Love Song: housemade crust topped with mozzarella or rinotta (vegan dairy-free cheese: instead of "ricotta," ), ham, pineapple, jalapeños and spicy sriracha. The Zaat, with salty and crunchy Korean-style kimchi and a fried egg, is equally delicious. And Shana Massett swears that the Bold New Pizza of the South — rinotta, roasted tomatoes, roasted garlic, mushrooms, hummus and olives — is so good that non-vegans order it regularly. For meat lovers, there's the aptly named Uncle Meat with salami, pepperoni, ham and sausage.

In addition, Sun-Ray offers hot dogs with your choice of toppings, nachos, hummus, breadsticks and a handful of sandwiches. The Wildly Inauthentic Cuban caught my eye: pulled pork, ham, sweet pickles and Swiss cheese on fresh-pressed bread. It's tasty, but I'm still a pizza girl at heart.

Come thirsty. In addition to pitchers of soda and beer, you can order wine by the glass or bottle, bottled natural …   More

ULTIMATE SUMMER GUIDE

SHRIMP BOIL

Sunday afternoon (live music on the deck 4-8 p.m.)

Whitey’s Fish Camp, 2032 C.R. 220, Orange Park

Price: $15.99

269-4198, whiteysfishcamp.com

Nothing quite says summer like a low-country boil on the water. With live music wafting through the air, a breeze blowing through your hair and a frosty beverage in your hand, Whitey’s is the perfect spot to unwind. Shrimp are served with pieces of potatoes, spicy sausage and corn on the cob — a finger-licking-good spread, bebe.

 

DIPPED SOFT-SERVE VANILLA ICE CREAM CONE

Dreamette, 3646 Post St., Murray Hill

Price: $2.40 for a small cone

379-4343, facebook.com/dreamette

Cones, shakes and banana splits, oh my! This neighborhood spot is perfect for cooling off on a hot summer day — good thing the cones have a little plastic drip-guard. The soft-serve vanilla is dipped in your choice of flavored coatings (butterscotch, cake batter, chocolate, etc.). For 65 years, Dreamette has doled out sweet delights to adults and children alike. Portions are generous, prices are reasonable, it’s all delicious — and because of that, you’ll usually find yourself waiting in line. Bring a wad of dollar bills: Dreamette only takes cash.

 

THE JACK DEL RIO GRANDE SUB AND LARGE SWEET TEA

Tuesdays-Saturdays

Angie’s Subs, 1436 Beach Blvd., Jacksonville Beach

Price: $6.45 for a 10-inch sub

246-2519, facebook.com/angiessubs

Warm turkey, roast beef, crispy bacon, melted provolone, sautéed mushrooms, crunchy barbecue Frito chips and spicy ranch dressing on a toasted white or wheat hoagie roll (your choice) make for a perfect pre- or post-beach lunch. Douse it with one of the squeeze bottles of tangy Peruvian sauce and pair it with a bag of chips. Fill up your cup from an oversized vat of award-winning sweet iced tea. The atmosphere’s laid-back with mismatched tables and chairs and an authentic, casual, easy-going …   More

BITE-SIZED

What's 31 days long, full of health benefits and colorful vegetables, and has local community and restaurant support? If you guessed No Meat March, you win. (I probably shouldn't proclaim "winner, winner, chicken dinner!")

Foregoing meat is gaining momentum for a number of reasons, and while many already honor Meatless Monday — dedicating one day a week to conscientious vegetarianism — No Meat March (nomeatmarch.com) encourages Northeast Floridians to take a 31-day pledge to give up meat and seafood. As a participant for the past two years, I found my energy increased and I began craving leafy greens and juicy fruits. Honestly, tempeh and tofu (which, when cooked properly, is quite versatile) are delicious and enabled me to experience one of the best Reuben sandwiches of my life, made with tempeh, sauerkraut and avocado on pressed ciabatta bread.

Local meteorologist Julie Watkins, a vegan all the time (not just Mondays, and not just March), helped found Girls Gone Green in 2007 to bring awareness to the environment, animal welfare and health. "Everything is connected," she says, "and how we look at one greatly impacts the others."

Meat-free for nearly 20 years, Watkins has several favorite places around the area with menu items she recommends. "Happy Cup in Atlantic Beach has the yummiest wraps — the strawberry with hazelnut, almonds and agave is the best," she raves. "And Tapa That [in 5 Points] has mushroom quesadillas that are amazing!"

Looking for easy meat-free options? Hit these spots: any Mellow Mushroom, any Tropical Smoothie (which carries Beyond Meat, chicken-free strips you can substitute in any menu item), Buddha Thai Bistro and any European Street Café.

"No Meat March is a short-term commitment and challenge that will take you out of your box," says Jessica Campbell, co-founder of Jax Vegan Love. "It will inspire you to explore new recipes at home and try new menu items you may have previously overlooked when dining …   More

BITE-SIZED

Looking for some tasty, inexpensive, low-frills, diner-style fare served in a chill atmosphere? Check out 5 Points' Derby on Park, near the landmark flashing light roundabout.

Start with the supremely simple yet savory Derby Fries ($5.95): A pile of crisp house-cut potatoes topped with a rich, flavorful beef gravy. If you're dining with a group, the diced chicken and spinach nachos ($9.50) with tomatoes and a runny white cheese sauce are ridiculously large and should more than hold you over until your meal arrives.

As far as burgers go, you can't go wrong with the popular 3B — a perfect trifecta of smoked bacon, crumbled bleu cheese and balsamic spring mix ($10.95). Or try the Jack & Tom, complete with fried green tomato, onion, jack cheese and ranch dressing.

Perhaps the most interesting menu item is a 12-inch, hand-dipped, cornmeal battered corn dog that brilliantly recalls carnival food. The batter is delicious and slightly sweet. Order it with a hearty helping of fries; you won't be hungry again for days (or weeks).

The Van Fletcher Reuben ($9.95) is a traditional offering done right. Think two grilled slabs of marble rye bread smothered with sambal aioli then loaded with a half-pound of corned beef and pastrami, as well as the requisite tangy sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese.

Derby uses local Intuition Ale Works' Jon Boat Coastal Ale to batter the flaky redfish on the Intuition Fish 'n' Chips ($12.50) platter, which includes fries, cole slaw and a cup of smoky chipotle aioli for dipping — comfort food at its finest.

For vegetarians, the meatless, crêpe-like Tuck & Roll ($10.50) touts creamed spinach, sautéed portabella, mixed peppers and onions rolled up in an oversized lasagna noodle and topped with mozzarella and marinara. The corners of the noodles were overcooked, resulting in oddly (though not undesirable) crunchy edges.

One complaint: The service was prompt, but it took way too long for our lunch to get to our table. …   More

BITE-SIZED

Is it considered an obsession if you've eaten at a place five times the first two weeks it's open for business? If so, consider me obsessed with Hawkers.

First, the menu. Part infographic (so that's how I hold my chopsticks!), part design masterpiece, there's an abundance of mouthwatering options, and that's because Hawkers serves up street food from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, Japan and Malaysia. (The food is so good, I temporarily forget I'm in 5 Points.)

I can't say enough about the atmosphere: Huge windows open to unveil an entirely open façade. Large upside-down wok-like pans serve as light fixtures and hang from an exposed wood beam ceiling. An old upcycled wooden palette with chalkboard paint serves as the craft beer list.

Hawkers is thoroughly modern, comfortable and hip.

The food speaks for itself. I can't think of any comparable places in town that have such a culturally diverse menu with such reasonable prices.

Start with the roti canai, a Malaysian flat bread ($3) that I can best describe as fluffy Indian naan meets the airiness of a French crêpe. It's served with a cup of delightfully spicy curry dipping sauce. Another standout is the crispy roasted pork "siu yoke" ($6), or pork belly, served with a thick hoisin dipping sauce and garnished with scallions.

Items are intended to be shared, even the soups. You'll receive a large bowl, two smaller cups and a giant ladle. The tom yum soup ($8.50) touts a spicy lemongrass broth that's loaded with flat rice noodles, shrimp, bean sprouts, basil, straw mushrooms, tomatoes and cucumbers. It's great on a chilly day and leaves you feeling warm inside.

I preferred the stir-fry noodle dishes to the rice bowls. Hawkers' stir-fry udon noodles ($8), with eggs, scallions, onions, bean sprouts and carrots, and chicken pad Thai ($8) earn my top honors. Runner-up? The Zha Jiang Mian ($7.50), a traditional Chinese dish with blanched noodles, ground chicken, yow chow (a leafy green similar to bok …   More

BITE-SIZED

What started as a taco stand in St. Augustine more than 10 years ago has transformed into a small, laid-back eatery in St. Augustine Shores. Since nothing on the menu is priced over $10, Nalu's is a great spot for dining in or grabbing a bite 
on the run.

A chalkboard outside the door displays specials, and I was immediately enticed by the Mermaid Wrap ($9): seared Cajun ahi tuna, sticky rice with cilantro pesto and soy sauce and diced cucumber, all happily tucked away in a toasted spinach wrap. It was a magical blend of ingredients and flavors, and I'd certainly order it again.

The Ahi Burger ($9) is a burger-shaped mound of fresh yellowfin tuna steak that's seasoned and served on a soft whole-wheat bun. Topped with a cilantro pesto, crisp pieces of red cabbage, shreds of cheddar and jack cheeses and homemade baja sauce, it was nicely portioned.

After observing the "Best Tacos in St. Augustine" embellishment on the menu, we also ordered two tacos — one shrimp, one blackened mahi. Both arrived on flour tortillas piled haphazardly with cabbage, shredded cheese, cilantro pesto and a drizzle of thick, creamy baja sauce. Of the two, the mahi was better; the fish was juicy, nicely seasoned and, perhaps most important, full of flavor.

Most tacos and burgers are served with your choice of side — beans and rice, corn tortilla chips and salsa (red or verde), or a simple salad tossed with light mango dressing, garnished with cucumber slices and a sprinkling of sunflower seeds.

Nalu's serves only wild-caught fish (no farm-raised nonsense here!), making for really flavorful tacos, burritos and sashimi. And fresh is the name of the game: The eatery's sauces, salsas, soups and pestos are crafted using fresh ingredients from a local farmers' market and various area produce stands.

Kids will go crazy for the assortment of cleverly named shaved Hawaiian ices ($2-$3), such as luau lime, big kahuna cherry and da cotton candy kine.

The original location …   More

 
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